Sumana Harihareswara delivered the opening keynote to WikiConference USA last week. Sumana is the current senior technical writer for the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as a member of the Ada Initiative's advisory board, and active blogger for Geek Feminism, but spoke here in her personal capacity. She's also heavily active in the broader world of free and open-source software. A full transcript of Sumana's speech is available, and versions are on Commons in both video and audio form.
Because not all Wikimedians can view these formats, I've gone ahead and uploaded both the audio and video versions of Sumana's keynote to the Internet Archive—if you can't view her speech on Commons, you should be able to view it using one of the formats the Internet Archive has transcoded the files to.
Sumana Harihareswara delivers the keynote at WikiConference USA last week
I never feel quite adequate trying to paraphrase Sumana's words: she is so articulate. I highly encourage every person who reads this article to directly watch her keynote—it directly speaks to a lot of Wikimedia's most significant issues, made with great eloquence. We have a serious issue with retaining editors, and parts of her speech could serve as a pretty good partial blueprint towards how we could begin to fix that problem.
Sumana recently returned from a three-month sabbatical during which she attended Hacker School, an experimental school structured to provide a friendly, pro-actively safe environment where people work together in a collaborative environment to improve their programming skills. She applied lessons and observations she had taken from Hacker School and brought them to bear on the Wikimedia environment—with one of the most significant single points she brought up (in my mind at least), being the balance between liberty and hospitality. The difference between an environment where social norms are enforced to some extent (including through exclusion in extreme cases) and an environment where complete liberty is allowed (or to paraphrase Sumana paraphrasing of John Scalzi, "the ability to be a dick in every possible circumstance") is often perceived as a difference between an environment that excludes, and one that doesn't—but that's not the case. Quoting Sumana: "If we exclude no one explicitly, we are just excluding a lot of people implicitly."
Digressing from the direct content of her speech, there was one remarkable interchange between Sumana and an audience member that I think is worth noting—one that highlighted many of the issues she brought up in her keynote. Speaking to a photographer in the audience, she commented that she started more wildly gesticulating whenever she was being photographed, and hoped the photographer didn't object. To directly quote a snippet from the transcript:
Camera operator: Don't worry; I'll make you look beautiful!
Sumana: Make me look smart, that's more important.
Sumana's keynote touched on more issues significant to Wikimedia's community than I have space to mention here, but I highly encourage you to take a direct look at the transcript or video/audio of her speech that I linked at the beginning—I think the ideas she puts forward could represent an excellent first step towards creating a more friendly, open, inclusive Wikimedia movement.
... to keep us from accidentally discouraging other people from doing the things they need to do to learn, at Hacker School there are four social rules ... to help everyone feel okay with failure and ignorance: no feigned surprise; no "well-actuallys"; no back-seat driving; and no sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. Now, the user manual, which is available online, does a great job explaining all these, and I'm going to talk about the first two, because they're the most important for our context.
So Hacker School provided a relaxing learning community for me where I could fail safely and I had role models. It was great. I learned a lot. And then in January, when I came back to work, I felt like a fish who had taken a three-month break from the water she swims in, and wow, it was demoralizing. It is—we have demoralizing people in the Wikimedia community, and we have some demoralizing processes in places, and some of us have gotten used to it, but then there's the people who are leaving or who are thinking of leaving, or who never even come in. It's super demoralizing to be in a world where some people seem to follow the opposite of those four social rules, like those are the key tactics in how they relate to others.
I was able to able to articulate this to myself as the spectrum of liberty versus hospitality. The Wikimedia movement really privileges liberty, way over hospitality. And for many people in the Wikimedia movement, free speech, as John Scalzi put it, is the ability to be a dick in every possible circumstance. Criticize others in any words we like, change each other's words, and do anything that is not legally prohibited.
Hospitality, on the other hand, is thinking more about right speech, just speech, useful speech, and compassion. We only say and do things that help each other. The first responsibility of any citizen is to help each other achieve our goals, and make each other happy.
I think these two views exist on a spectrum, and we are way over to one side, and moving closer to the middle would help everyone learn better and would help us keep and grow our contributor base.
Valuing hospitality: another thing I'd like us to do. When someone is criticized for doing something inhospitable, the first response needs to not be: "Oh, but remember their edit count. Remember he's done X or she's done Y for this community." We need to start treating hospitality as a first-class virtue, and see that it is the seed of everything else. Alberto Brandolini said "The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." It has a big cost when someone treats others badly. If someone is ruining the hospitality of a place by using their liberty in a certain way, we need to stop making excuses, and start on the path of exclusion. If we exclude no one explicitly, we are just excluding a lot of people implicitly. Including people like me.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to propose their own op-ed should email the Signpost's editor in chief.